When close friend Daniel Johnston took his own life after struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), former comrades Dan Arnold, 33, and Stephen James, 31, decided something needed to be done to prevent others meeting a similar tragic fate.
The two former soldiers from the Second Battalion Prince of Wales Regiment set up their own charity support network – All Call Signs.
Dan said: We decided we needed to provide support after Daniel took his own life. I’ve had my own issues with PTSD after leaving the army. I was involved in an incident with an explosive device when serving in Afghanistan. The government didn’t really have anything in place and so we decided to do something ourselves.’
Stephen added: ‘I experienced very bad depression during my period of service and also suffered PTSD after leaving the forces. Something needed to be done. Since 2018, 140 former service people have taken their own lives – 100 last year and 40 this year.’
Daniel’s mother, Viv Johnston, is a trustee of the charity and believes things could have ended differently for Daniel, if he had access to such a support network.
Viv said: ‘Daniel was in the same regiment as Dan and Stephen for 10 years before joining special forces. He left in 2014 and went into security work. He couldn’t bear being out of the army and was already showing signs of PTSD. He was reluctant to go to a doctor as any medical record of mental health issues could prevent him getting future work.’
In May 2018, after being missing for three days, Daniel’s body was found in woods near Chichester. Daniel’s loss proved to be the catalyst for the founding of All Call Signs.
‘The police don’t even class someone as missing until after 24 hours but in Daniel’s case this was too long,’ said Viv.
‘Both myself and Dan were involved in the search for Daniel. History has shown that when former service people go missing, the police protocol of 24 hours means it can often be too late,’ added Stephen.
To tackle this situation, All Call Signs have established a beacon alert system.
Once informed a veteran has gone missing, the charity uses its protected Facebook messenger site to alert family and friends as well as the wider armed forces community – up to three million people. The facility enables localised search teams to come together to look for anyone who may be missing within that crucial 24-hour period.
Stephen said: ‘The service has been really successful. Since it was set up there has been 53 beacon alerts, 48 of which have been successful. Without it then I’m sure the figure of 140 people lost would be far higher.’
Other support services include an app which provides a direct phone link to 50 volunteer listeners – all former service personnel or associated family. The charity also provides a fast-track system to access professional medical support from counsellors.
Stephen said: ‘We have a network of over 500 trained therapists and professionals. The NHS are really struggling and the waiting times for mental health referrals are between six to eight weeks which is a joke. We can get people the clinical support they need for free within 48 hours.’
Stephen and Dan were keen to stress the charity does not just provide support for veterans suffering from extreme conditions such as PTSD.
‘It doesn’t have to be a crisis situation – many veterans who may not have even seen active service can struggle when they return to civilian life.
‘After many years people may return to where they previously lived and find they have no support network.
‘They can struggle to get employment and may get into problems such as debt. It’s a condition known as adjustment disorder which can make people feel very isolated which in itself can be harmful.
‘I know people who have taken their own lives as a result of this,’ said Stephen.
The charity’s most recent development is to establish a permanent community hub on Albert Road in Southsea. The centre provides a place for veterans to meet in person as well as peer support sessions and advice to get back into work.
While the charity can’t bring Daniel back, it does provide a source of positivity to mum, Viv.
‘The boys have done a fantastic job in providing what is an absolutely vital service. It does provide some consolation in the sense that it can stop this happening to other families and prevent anymore Daniels,’ said Viv.
‘WITHOUT ALL CALL SIGNS I WOULDN’T BE HERE’
VETERAN Arthur Lilley, 66, believes he may ‘not be here’ if it wasn’t for the support of All Call Signs.
Arthur, who lives in Southsea, served in the First Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment for 25 years before leaving the forces in 1994. He saw active service in Northern Ireland as well as operations in North Africa, Cyprus and Central America.
‘There were a couple of occasions when my life was in danger and I saw friends and colleagues injured and killed in Northern Ireland. It was 20 years later I started to be affected. After leaving the forces I was having violent mood swings and was struggling to know what was wrong. I went to the doctor but they didn’t get to the bottom of the problem,’ said Arthur.
It was after visiting a drop-in session at the Royal Maritime Club that a doctor confirmed he was suffering from PTSD. Despite the diagnosis, Arthur received little help and continued to struggle with the condition.
‘I felt deeply depressed and was in a dark place,’ said Arthur.
‘However it was something which I struggled to talk about as I hid my emotions. At the time I was in the army, showing your emotions was a sign of weakness,’ he added.
It was six months ago that Arthur’s barber mentioned to him about the new centre which had opened up on the same road - All Call Signs.
Arthur said: ‘I decided to go along and it was such a welcoming environment where you can speak to people who have had a similar experience. I go there each week and it helps to keep me mentally sound. It’s great to know that if I need therapy then they can arrange it. As former veterans we may look normal but if you dig down deep then many of us are dealing with serious issues. To be honest, I don’t think I would be here today if it wasn’t for these guys.’
‘I HAD BEEN THROUGH DIFFICULT TIMES AND HIT ROCK BOTTOM
A FORMER colleague of Dan and Stephen, Simon Poland served in the army for 11 years before returning to civilian life in 2009. Simon turned to All Call Signs after almost a decade of struggling with PTSD and adjusting to life outside the forces.
‘I found it a really difficult transition from military to civilian life. I also had a bereavement which triggered my PTSD. I felt aggrieved there was no support – I had done my time in the forces and felt like I’d been cast aside. I felt isolated and alone. I‘d been through difficult times and hit rock bottom,’ said Simon.
Simon, who saw active service in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan and received The Queen's Commendation for Bravery, contacted All Call Signs last year.
‘It has been a great support to me and provided me the counselling I needed to move forward. I now feel like I have come through my journey and am positive about the future. People have a sense of pride to get through things on their own but we should never be afraid to talk,’ said Simon.
Simon and Arthur joined other veterans and supporters for a day of sea kayaking, games and a celebratory lunch.
‘Today has been fantastic to see other veterans supported through All Call Signs and to showcase the brilliant work they do,’ said Simon.
Stephen added: ‘Today has been about thanking our supporters and also providing an opportunity for veterans to connect with people in a similar situation.’
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE SUFFERING FROM MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
Stephen has advised anyone suffering from a mental health issues to go to their GP and inform them that they are ex services.
‘This should trigger a Transition, Intervention and Liaison Service (TILS) which should speed up any referral for mental health,’ he explained.
He also urged former personnel to get in touch with All Call Signs and download the support app via its website at https://allcallsigns.org